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G Money: A new pathway to the NBA is taking shape

Jalen Green was wooed by Memphis and its fans for months. Thousands chanted “We want Jalen” at the team’s first event that he visited this past season as he nodded in approval and acknowledgement. Even Grizzlies rookie guard Ja Morant was in on the sales pitch, doing all he could to convince Green to come to his city.

And then the G League came calling.

Before long, everything — Green’s plans, the trajectory and mission of the G League, perhaps even the landscape of college basketball on some level — changed. When Green signed to become the first to go straight from high school into the G League’s new developmental program that gives elite players an opportunity to make money while spending a year solely majoring in basketball, a new era for the game officially began.

“There’s nothing wrong with college basketball,” Green said. “I have a lot of friends that I played with in college right now. But I just felt this was the best route for me. Being different, I carried that through high school and this was another way that I could carry on being different.”

So far, Green — a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who was considered by some as the top recruit in the country — is one of three players to take advantage of this new pathway. He’s been joined since by 6-10 power forward Isaiah Todd, and 6-4 point guard Daishen Nix. Todd was committed to Michigan, Nix was actually signed by UCLA. It’s likely that they’ll be joined by at least two more players, with a center and a small forward believed to be the primary targets so the initial group can have one player at every primary position.

It is very similar to recruiting: The G League is identifying top talent and trying to sign those players, much in the same way colleges are.

“I don’t think this is us in competition with college basketball,” G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim said. “For those young men who are looking for alternatives to the natural route, we’re offering an alternative that we believe will be a good program for them.”

But in many respects, this very much seems like it will be the G League competing with the NCAA — at least for the elite players.

Green, a person with knowledge of his deal who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because it has not been released publicly, signed a contract that could exceed $1 million when factoring in all available possibilities. The person said the deal includes a college scholarship, which the G League will provide if he chooses to attend school again at some point.

That’s big money: The G League was initially planning to offer $125,000 salaries in this program, and most G League players are making just below $40,000. And colleges, which can pay players through stipends and other allowances, simply cannot keep up — not within NCAA guidelines, anyway.

“If it was a free market where Jalen could go directly to the NBA, he’d have been a top pick this year,” said longtime agent Aaron Goodwin, who advises Green. “The G League was prepared to do something that no college could do … center a program around his development. They saw that and the college coaches couldn’t offer that.”

There are some who would argue that losing a handful of players — even elite ones — won’t hurt college basketball too much. There were 4,806 players who appeared in at least one Division I men’s game this season, and someone will happily take the spots that Green, Todd and Nix would have had on the Memphis, Michigan and UCLA rosters.

But even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has been sounding the alarm on looming changes for several months, citing the rate of attrition in the college game and saying it “can’t take that type of a hit” and that “we have not kept up with it.”

And after his team beat Georgia Tech this past season, Krzyzewski likened what’s happening in college basketball to a scene in a Western — where a cowboy loses the reins on a horse, and the horse just starts to run wild. That’s one of the reasons why Krzyzewski said parity seemed all the rage in college basketball in 2019-20.

“It’s affected our game,” Krzyzewski said. “Really, anybody can win. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m saying that’s what happened. … If you look at this as a business, the amount of guys going (to the NBA), the amount of guys testing (the NBA waters), the amount of guys transferring, whoa. Whoa. It’s a lot. It’s a lot.”

There are many details of the G League plan still being finalized. It’s likely the team will use the Mamba Sports Academy in Southern California its home base, and former NBA coach of the year Sam Mitchell — who has coached Green in the past on the AAU circuit — is expected to be part of the coaching staff tasked with working with the group.

But the higher salaries and the program specifically designed as a prep school of sorts for the NBA, it made perfect sense to the signees.

“I think I would have entered the draft this year if I had the chance to do that,” Todd said. “Because at the end of the day, ever since I started playing basketball, the goal was always to go to the NBA.”